Sexual harassment: Another roadblock for women in science

Sexual harassment: Another roadblock for women in science
(Holger Hollemann / EPA)

Earlier this month, news broke that astronomy professor Geoff Marcy, who discovered some of the first planets beyond our solar system, was formally investigated by UC Berkeley and found guilty of repeated sexual harassment and sexual assault of female students from 2001 to 2010. Despite these findings, UC Berkeley did not terminate Marcy's position, inciting anger both within and outside the university. Following numerous calls from the astronomy community encouraging stronger disciplinary action, Marcy announced last Wednesday his intention to resign.

While Marcy's departure means he can no longer harm students, the problem of sexual harassment in academia, particularly in the sciences, is much larger than any individual offender. Marcy's story parallels that of popular Massachusetts Institute of Technology physics professor Walter Lewin, who, in a formal investigation nearly one year ago, was found to have harassed at least 10 students. And one recent survey of anthropologists and archaeologists found that 70% of women respondents said they were sexually harassed and 26% sexually assaulted as trainees doing fieldwork.


The problem of sexual harassment in academia, particularly in the sciences, is much larger than any individual offender.

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The apparent frequency of sexual harassment spurs an important question: Why aren't there more stories like Marcy's in the news? That is to say, why aren't more women reporting, leading to more investigations and more national attention to the problem?

The answer stems from the power dynamics within academia and the fact that women are vastly underrepresented in the sciences.

Men occupy most senior positions. For example, among physics faculty in the United States, only 8% of full professors are women. Some departments have no women on the faculty, and others have so few that an undergraduate student may never take a science course taught by a female professor. (I did not.)

The absence of senior women has a palpable effect on the treatment of junior women. In my experience, they are often regarded as outsiders, and their opinions are frequently overlooked. This climate makes it difficult for a female target to come forward, especially if her harasser is a senior male professor.

Her first concern is whether anyone will believe her. If she reports harassment to other faculty members (who are also likely to be men), will they accept her story or dismiss it? The latter is more likely.

The senior professor is their colleague and friend with whom they have worked for decades. He is a respected and productive scientist who is awarded large grants to support their department, and he has likely trained many (also male) researchers who have gone on to successful careers. The alleged target, on the other hand, is young and unfamiliar. They may feel they owe her nothing.

Her second concern is retaliation. To move up in the ranks, she needs senior scientists singing her praises. The competition is fierce: Each faculty opening has hundreds of applicants vying for the job. It only takes one phone call from an influential person labeling her as a troublemaker to stop her career in its tracks. Thus, she must weigh whether reporting the abuse is worth risking her professional goals.

If she does convince the faculty that harassment occurred, will they do anything about it? They may dismiss the incidents as not significant enough to warrant investigation, or they may even blame her for the harassment occurring. They may also be afraid to tarnish the reputation of their department or institution. It is in their interest to guard the secret and pretend it did not happen.

And if a formal investigation proves guilt, will the harasser suffer any consequences? The tenure system dramatically increases the level of bureaucracy necessary to dismiss a professor for misconduct. As a result, harassers may only be given a warning rather than stronger disciplinary action, as in the case of Marcy at UC Berkeley.

Collectively, these factors make reporting harassment a time-consuming and risky process, with small likelihood of a satisfactory outcome. Most harassers are aware of and exploit these aspects of the system, and it is how they are able to harm students unchecked for so long.

Such a hostile environment may discourage women from pursuing science careers, leading to even more gender imbalance — and creating a vicious negative feedback loop. Until the cycle's broken and women occupy more positions of power in academia, the problem is likely to remain.

Laura Lopez is an assistant professor of astronomy at Ohio State University.

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